Teachers on picket lineBy Will Oremus
Mills High School economics teacher George Pleasant saw his monthly out-of-pocket medical expenses jump $400 in January. Mills math teacher Denise Dreyer switched to her husband's health plan rather than face a similar leap.
Both were among 150 or so teachers and support staff who picketed in front of the San Mateo Union High School District offices Thursday afternoon. The employees, most clad in black union T-shirts, lined up along Delaware Street to show their disappointment with stalled contract talks and anger over the district's recent cuts to their health care benefits.
There's no doubt those two issues are hitting some employees' pocketbooks. But whether the district has done anything illegal, as the teachers and classified staff unions allege, is a question that might remain murky until a state board investigates in March.
For Pleasant, it's the absence of a contract that is chipping away at his salary. Health care premiums have climbed in 2007, but without a new contract, teachers' benefits are capped at 2006 rates.
For Dreyer, the issue is different. This year the district began interpreting certain language in its old contract with the teachers differently. It used to cap all teachers' health care benefits at the same high level, but that cap is now lower for teachers who aren't insuring entire families.
The unions charge that the district's switch represents a unilateral pay cut in a time of ongoing negotiations. They have filed a complaint with the state Public Employees Relations Board, which has agreed to investigate if the two sides can't resolve the issue on their own.
Ethel Konopka, the district's associate superintendent for human resources, says the tiered system of caps was provided for by the old contract with the teachers. The district just hadn't enforced it until now, when it faces a budget crisis.
Mills High School math teacher Peggy Peel says she doesn't buy that. "They're interpreting it differently from how it was interpreted at the negotiation table," she said while standing on the sidewalk during Thursday's picketing.
District representatives have said they will not respond to the protests because the school board and a third-party mediator have asked both sides to avoid inflammatory public statements or demonstrations during mediation.
The fact that the state board has issued a formal complaint doesn't mean the district did anything wrong, said Wesley Robin, the board's acting general counsel. Rather, it means that the union's claim against the district would constitute a violation if found to be true.
The conflict so far shows no signs of abating amid ongoing mediation. Before sending the demonstrators home Thursday, teachers union president Craig Childress told them, "Please clean up and pick up the signs. I'm sure we'll need them again."
Copyright ©2007 San Mateo Daily News. Published 02/02/2007.